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Speak Up for Trans Youth - a community action meeting - pushes back against right-wing attacks
"We can't let them be the loudest voices in the room, spreading misinformation that people will believe if left unchallenged. We can't ignore them even if they seem completely ridiculous."
Over 125 people crowded into the auditorium at the William H Hall Library in Cranston on Wednesday to “Speak Up for Trans Youth” in light of recent efforts by anti-trans conservative groups seeking to undermine a Rhode Island Department of Education [RIDE] policy that protects Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming and Non-Binary students. [See here and here.]
“Trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse youth deserve safe, supportive schools for the same educational opportunities as their peers,” wrote organizers. “Their rights in schools are under attack as national campaigns filter into Rhode Island to try and eliminate our long-standing protections for trans youth. These youth need allies to ensure they can learn and thrive.”
Organizers hoped to build connections across supportive communities and between organizations, while also learning about current advocacy efforts. The event also marked the first anniversary of a rally at the same location that successfully rebuffed hate-base attacks on trans youth in 2022.
A short speaking program was emceed by Jaye Watts, Director of Transgender Health at Thundermist Health Center. Full video and transcription, lightly edited for clarity, below:
Jaye Watts: I've been advocating around trans issues for the last 15 or more years. This is a community action meeting. We're going to start with a series of speakers who will share their knowledge and experience about what's happening, the impact that it's having on youth and families, and the responsibility that we all have for local government. Then we're going to learn about several ways that you can all get involved. Then there'll be a little bit of time to mingle and network and interact with the community groups and resources that we've brought together that are ready to engage you to build a network and coalition to support trans youth. We believe that trans youth deserve the same supportive schools and educational opportunities as their peers and that Rhode Island's long history of being on the leading edge of trans rights did not happen by accident. It happened because people in the community made it happen, and we need your help to protect the gains that we've made and to pass the hurdles that we've yet to conquer.
Ryan Fontaine: I'm the full-time Trans Health Education and Policy Specialist at Thundermist Health Center. I'm a lifelong Rhode Islander and very happy to call the state that has led on non-discrimination protections for trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse people home. I was a public school student long enough ago that supportive policies for gender-diverse students mandated by the Rhode Island Department of Education didn't exist yet. Without clear support or anyone that I thought I could turn to, in a school environment that was openly hostile to the few out gay students, I didn't come out until college. As an out adult working in a private, for-profit business, I couldn't stand reading the headlines about political attacks on trans people, including those happening in Rhode Island, without taking action.
While becoming a full-time advocate, like I did, might be a reach for most of you in the room, there are ways that you can get involved. We need allies who can lend their support in local towns and cities where you all live. If you're wondering why now and why the urgency, it's hard to miss the nationally meteoric rise in policy proposals at the federal, state, and local level that would, even where unsuccessful, have harmed the trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse people that they target.
This rise, which seemingly came out of nowhere, was being planned while we were all celebrating marriage equality and dismantling a big piece of the movement for LGBTQ rights after having reached that singular milestone. Meanwhile, the groups that were fighting against marriage equality found a new way to rally their supporters, channeling tens of millions of dollars from their funders, taking what they learned while running the anti-abortion movement, and deploying it even more quickly against gender-diverse people.
In all 50 states, they have gained traction, like other unpopular conservative movements, by flying under the banner of protecting children. What's happening in Rhode Island is no different. With a very loud minority of activists and a handful of elected officials, they are targeting the policies that have existed for nearly a decade in all school districts in Rhode Island that followed best practices in supporting trans students.
The anti-trans activists tipped their hand during public comments made at a school committee meeting in Foster-Gloucester. Because the majority of Rhode Island's elected officials don't support their positions, they're shopping for one school district that will openly defy the Rhode Island Department of Education requirements for supportive policies to force a legal challenge. They have backing from national law groups ready to defend the school committee that will change their policy in harmful ways, to bring the RIDE requirements down in the courts. We know, from the results in other states and statements made by the public leaders of the anti-trans movement, that their ultimate goal is to make it so difficult to be a trans person that people like me can't exist in the United States at any age.
Chipping away at protective policies in schools is their way of gaining a foothold. We can't let them be the loudest voices in the room, spreading misinformation that people will believe if left unchallenged. We can't ignore them even if they seem completely ridiculous.
They won't just give up when they're supported by national organizations with millions of dollars to spend by waging "lawfare" - as they like to call it - and running camps to train conservative school committee members. Efforts to remove trans people from public life harm us all by requiring everyone to follow outdated ideas about social roles based on assigned sex and limiting the choices that anyone can make about their bodies.
I'm sure everyone in the room can recall being told as a young person something along the lines of boys don't do that or girls don't do that. We won't be able to reach the ideal that someone's assigned sex won't dictate their future until we move beyond gendered social requirements. I hope that together we can work towards a positive climate in schools and in our wider communities that is more supportive of trans people. Right now, we're stuck on defending the minimum protections that have already been won.
Stephanie Geller: I'm the deputy director at Rhode Island Kids Count, and I want to just tell you a little bit about that role before I talk a little bit about my role as a mom. Rhode Island Kids Count is a children's policy, research, and advocacy organization that works to improve the health, economic well-being, safety, and development of Rhode Island's children. We have a commitment to equity, including the elimination of unacceptable disparities, by race, ethnicity, disability, zip code, immigration status, neighborhood, and income. And that commitment to equity includes gender equity.
In May of 2001, Rhode Island became the second state in the country to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression. In 2017, Rhode Island Kids Count testified on the need for the Rhode Island Department of Education to develop a strong policy or guidance on the rights and protection of transgender and gender non-conforming students in schools.
More recently, we've supported legislation on a student bill of rights and opposed damaging, hateful legislation that would've placed restrictions on both curriculum and teaching practices in Rhode Island, prohibited psychological or medical counseling in any school setting, excluded gender identity and sexual orientation and sex education, require educators to use names and pronouns associated with the student's biological gender instead of their [assigned] gender identity, and establish disciplinary measures against educators for violations of these provisions. These are the kinds of hateful laws that we're fighting and I know that all of you here are against today.
I want you to know that Rhode Island Kids Count stands firmly in support of trans youth, but mostly I'm here as the parent of a 17-year-old son who is trans. We live right in this neighborhood just a few blocks away. My son Connor came out to my husband and me when he was in his early teens and we've supported him throughout his journey, as has his school and community.
I know this is not the experience that many other people have had. So I want to offer that positive experience and see what we can all do together to have it be that more young people have the experience that my son has had. The summer before 10th grade, I went with him to his school and we formally changed his name and gender marker on his school records. We met with the vice principal, she went right into the computer. She changed it before we had any formal court records or anything. She was very helpful.
Later that year we went to court in Cranston and we changed his name legally, and then filed the necessary forms to change his name and gender on his birth certificate. Both the judge and the court were very supportive and clapped and congratulated him. The people I worked with at the Department of Health were also very supportive. And then, just this month, he finally got his driver's license with his name and his proper gender marker and we're so proud of him.
I also want to commend my son's school, which is Cranston East right down the road, for making him feel welcome and supported. The vice principal and school nurses there have been particularly helpful to him, including helping him to change his school records and access locker rooms and bathrooms that he feels comfortable using. His teachers and other students have also been supportive and he has not experienced any bullying, which I know is not the normal experience. He knows that as well and feels very fortunate. He wants to do what he can to make sure more people have the experiences that he has.
Still, there have been struggles and feelings of discomfort when teachers and students who do not know that he's transgender unintentionally make remarks that are awkward, inappropriate, or offensive. So even in a place that wants to be supportive, he does have those experiences.
I also want to commend this community. Connor worked with us to write something up on Facebook announcing his transition and sharing our support as his parents. We received many letters, emails, and texts of support, and some of our neighbors and friends went even further. One neighbor sent custom-made socks with the name, Connor, and the year of his transition written on the socks. Another, who works for this Cranston library system, went into the computer system and changed his name for him in the computer system so his library card would have his name. Then, last year, hundreds of you came out to the rally held in support of trans youth in front of this very library, and he was there with many of his friends holding signs I know he and his friends appreciated the show of support from the friends, neighbors, organizations, and public officials that were there.
This year, Connor is applying to college and he's writing his essay on his transition and the support he has received from his school and his community. I know that he and I think that everyone should get this kind of support and I want to thank all of you for coming out today and for all you do other times and other days to speak up for trans youth, for your children, for your community, for your state, and for speaking out against hate.
Jaye Watts: I was not expecting to get a little teary, but I was getting a little teary hearing the experience that you had and that Connor had been going through. However, the process at the schools is directly tied to the regulations that are in place. Also, the experience with getting his name changed and with going to the Department of Health is directly tied to work that I've been involved with for so many years, hoping that folks just get through this and it's a non-issue and it just happens.
That didn't happen by accident. This is not magical fairies, well, maybe fairies, but not magical. It takes actual hard work to make sure that we're pulling these things together and organizing to make that change happen. It's inspiring to think about what else you can do to get involved. It takes a couple of people to do those things and then the impact goes on and on and on.
Reverend Donnie Anderson: [Executive Director of the Rhode Island Democratic Women's Caucus and social justice advocate] I am going to be fast, which is a miracle because I'm a politician and a preacher. Short doesn't come easy.
I first of all want to start with this one thing. A lot of the talk about those in our community revolves around the difficulty that we have in transition and some other things. And a lot of that's true, but what we don't talk about so much is what it means to be able to live as your authentic self, to wake up in the morning and know that today I get to be me. And I want to make sure we hear that because there are tough days, but there is joy, there is real joy. I want to share that with you.
So this last year, the ACLU was tracking around 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills. There were about 130 bills across the country and in state legislatures that targeted trans youth in a variety of ways. It's the young people that many of these legislative efforts are going after because there's a vulnerability there and there's this sympathy for what's referred to as "parents' rights." I'm not going to talk about that. I'd never get out of here and there's somebody much more qualified than me to talk about that. But what I do want to talk about are some practical things that you can do.
First of all, you can run for office, and I would encourage you to do that. There are a bunch of people here who have run for office. There are even some successful people here. Senator [Joshua] Miller is here. I don't know who else I'm missing.
There is a hero in this building right now and she is one of my superheroes and that is Jennifer Lima. Let me tell you how she's a hero. She ran for school committee, and I'm not going to tell her story, but she has seen more grief and - I grew up in Cranston, so I use the word agita quite frequently - more grief and agita than anyone has the right to. But she's a hero.
I would encourage you to run for office. There are folks here who can give you all kinds of information about how to run for office - but most of you aren't ready for that yet.
What can you do? Well, first of all, it's already been noted that a lot of the opposition that's grabbing hold here, I'm not talking about Florida or Texas and those places, right? I'm talking about Rhode Island and the effort that people are [undertaking] to reach out to school committees and local elected officials. School committee members are not somebody way out there. They're your neighbor and they've run for office and they have positions. You need to get to know their positions. The people who are endorsing good policy and good perspectives for our children need to be supported because if somebody comes out on a school committee and supports trans kids, they're going to get grief. And a lot of it is ugly beyond imagination. Those people need your support.
So I'm asking you if you want to help our kids, find out who in your community is on the school board, find out who is supporting the kids, and support them. They will be part of a political party. My guess is there's one party more than the other that is likely to be supportive, but your town has a town committee in that party. You go to that town committee and make sure that the town committee is supporting that person. Don't let them get away without giving full support to the school committee members who are supporting trans kids. You have no idea how important that is.
Stephanie mentioned the event we had here last year. A lot of you here last year. It was so cool. There were so many people. I went around and chatted with people and there were a lot of young people there. And I got chatting with a woman who was a mom. Don't you just love moms?
I said, "I'm impressed because people didn't know about this that much in advance."
She said there's a communication network that all the moms have in this area to get in touch with each other. I don't know if it was email or phone or text or whatever it was, but let me suggest something - Get a network going in your town and your city. It may only be three or four of you, to begin with, but get a network going and when something happens, let that network get going because here's the deal: A lot of times things that come before school committees don't have weeks and weeks of notice. School committees are required to put their agenda out ahead of time, and if you want to know what's going on, one of the other heroes in this room in terms of our trans kids and keeping us informed is Steve Ahlquist over there. He's an independent journalist. You go to his website, there's a donate button. You know what to do with that, right? Donate because I know I've caught onto things and found out about things from Steve that I wasn't hearing from anybody else and I'm on a lot of mailing lists. Some of them were fun. But set up a network of things that are going on in your area.
Become Involved in your local library and know your librarians and the people on the library board because they're being targeted.
I'm going to tell you two last things.
A lot of people are afraid to talk about this. I'm a preacher. I'm a pastor. Let me tell you this: The most oppressive institution in America for our trans kids is the Christian Church. Not every Christian Church is that way, but that is the reality.
I would encourage you, if you are a person of faith and you attend a church, to make sure that your church is supporting trans kids, and if they don't, leave and find a place that you can support, okay? We cannot let these people get away with that and distort a faith tradition that really ought to be supporting these kids.
Here's my last thing. As a parent, I have four kids and nine grandkids. I know what it's like to look at your child and feel helpless and like there's just nothing you can do because there's nothing in your power. I know that feeling, but this is not one of those times. You can do something, you are empowered to do something. This system of government allows you to have power and by all means, for the sake of our children, please exercise that power.
April Ruedaflores [United States marketing leader of Signify, a Latina mother of three, and an active LGBTQ and youth rights advocate]:
I'm the incoming board chair for The Womxn Project. We are a statewide organization dedicated to building a strong movement and harnessing the power of art, activism, and advocacy to dismantle systems of oppression and uplift the voices of people in our communities throughout our state. Our calling is to shift power and shape the politics that impact our lives and the lives of our neighbors in the pursuit of a more just Rhode Island. I'm so proud to be here with you tonight.
While I wish we didn't have to come together in this way because of an anti-trans event in our backyard, I am heartened to see so many people speaking out in solidarity. It warms my heart and I have chills just listening to the three speakers. As an organization committed to embodying the principles of reproductive justice, we know that true equality and liberation will only be achieved when all people have the economic, social, and political power to make healthy decisions about their bodies, sexuality, and reproduction. Reproductive justice demands that all people, not just cisgender people, have these rights, but systematic oppression and countless socioeconomic barriers bar many transgender people from obtaining economic, social, and political power fundamentals to reproductive justice.
Transgender individuals face stigma and discrimination in all aspects of life. That is why an event like this one, where we make it clear we will not be silent in the face of hate, is so very important. Basic human needs such as access to quality healthcare, economic security, and the ability to live free from violence are essential to reproductive justice but are not a reality for many transgender individuals because of the kind of lies that are being perpetuated about transgender people. Well, not on our watch and not in our state. The Womxn Project commits to continuing to do all that we can to tear down any system and refute the lies that deny equal protection, opportunity, and basic human dignity for transgender and gender non-conforming people here and everywhere.
We will continue to be in solidarity each day to organize and support events, to advocate for the policy change needed to ensure transgender equality and to push for the cultural change it will take to make sure that anti-transgender attacks are never allowed in our communities. We hope you'll be with us and by the looks of it you are.
The event was a collaboration of the TGI Network of Rhode Island, Youth Pride Inc, The Womxn Project, RI Queer PAC, and Thundermist Health Center with the support of Teach Truth RI, Haus of Codec, Newport Pride, Coyote RI, and many others.
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